Stories From the Front Line
A new book about the extraordinary experiences of people caught up in the First World War features three stories with strong links to Orkney.
Hidden Stories of the First World War, by Jackie Storer, was launched to help mark the British Library’s new exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Great War.
A collection of 32 stories from across Europe, the book provides a personal dimension to the four-year conflict.
The author got in touch with the Orkney Museum and local historian Brian Budge as part of her research into the story of Richard Simpson, a survivor of the sinking of HMS Hampshire, which went down off Orkney in 1916.
After steaming from Scapa Flow, HMS Hampshire was carrying the then Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener on a diplomatic mission to Russia when tragedy struck.
In heavy seas, the warship was approximately one-and-a-half miles off the Orkney Mainland, between the Brough of Birsay and Marwick Head, when she hit a mine laid by a German U-boat. Richard Simpson was one of only 12 on board who managed to reach the shore alive – Kitchener and all his staff were lost.
Official figures suggest 643 people perished in the disaster, although Mr Budge’s research shows the numbers were well in excess of 700.
The author spoke to Jim Sabiston, from Birsay, whose grand-parents and mother provided refuge for Simpson after he clambered ashore. Simpson was killed in action serving aboard the steamer SS Thames, when it was sunk by a German U-boat off Grimsby 13 months later.
During her conversations with Tom Muir, from the Orkney Museum, the author was alerted to two more stories which were also eventually chosen for the book.
One is a very personal account of the choices soldiers have to make in the heat of battle and features John Drever, from Westray, who survived the conflict and lived to the age of 95.
“John was my great uncle and his story always fascinated me,” Tom said. “He had been given a warning about someone behind him and when he turned there was a German soldier bearing down on him.
“For him, it was a case of him or me, and he killed him using his bayonet. When he returned home, he refused to go to Armistice Day parades, saying: ‘There is a mother in Germany who is mourning for her son.’ Those feelings stayed with him and he had nightmares for the rest of his life.”
Hidden Stories of the First World War also features Robert Taylor, from Flotta, whose Military Cross and compass are on display at the Orkney Museum.
Working in a bank in Stromness, he was in a reserved occupation, but felt he had to join up and fought in many battles including Arras, the Somme and Passchendaele, where he was killed.
A tribute posted in The Orcadian on November 3, 1917, notes that Lieutenant Taylor had just been awarded the Military Cross for bravery and adds that he “was not only a very gallant officer, but an excellent young man, of a disposition that made everyone who knew him his friend”.
“Given the sheer number of men who fought and died during WW1, it is very touching that three of the stories in the book have an Orkney involvement,” Tom added.
“It is so important that that these stories are written down and preserved in this way. Most books on WW1 focus more on the battles and the general picture of the soldiers’ experience, but this is a real glimpse of just how tough it was for those who fought.”
Jackie Storer said: “All these stories are special because they are largely unknown outside the family. They are the untold personal histories brought out from boxes under the bed or hidden deep in the attic, so this is all new material.
“The Orkney connection is particularly poignant because it illustrates the range of human emotions to events during the war and of lives cut short.
“There’s young Richard Simpson’s enthusiastic eye witness account to a major historical tragedy and his relief at being a survivor.
“But there is also guilt – from successful banker Robert Taylor who felt obliged to be involved in the war effort, and from John Drever, who could not cope with the fact he had killed a man.
“It’s been a privilege for me to listen, research and tell these family stories and to give these heroes a voice.”
Hidden Stories of the First World War by Jackie Storer is published by the British Library.
The photographs of Robert Taylor, John and Jane Drever have been provided by and with permission from the Orkney Library and Archive.